SOU profs part of nationwide project to address gender gap in the sciences

Women have been under-represented in the sciences since science began — and two faculty members in Southern Oregon University's biology and chemistry departments have been chosen for a $600,000 nationwide project that will enable them to network with an eye to overcoming such barriers.

"It's a great opportunity to share my experience with faculties (SOU and other universities) to share ideas and experiences and increase our ability to deliver our courses, to mentor, to bring a significant impact on women's careers and to overcome the challenging situation where there hasn't been a large representation of females in science," said chemistry associate professor Hala Schepmann.

Biology professor Carol Ferguson, the other appointee, says the grant gives women scientist-teachers four years to develop national networks for career advancement, mentoring, assistance in research and getting published.

"You do have to go beyond your own institution," says Ferguson. "We will Skype and meet 70 women scientists in person at annual conferences. Women are under-represented in science and academia; we don't advance at the same rate as our male counterparts." Participants will be grouped in cohorts based on their discipline and attainment level, but will also form cross-discipline cohorts, she said.

The project, "Advancing the Careers of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Predominantly Undergraduate Institutions through Professional Networks," also called ASAP, is funded by the National Science Foundation. Participating are SOU, Western Oregon University, Willamette University, Gonzaga University in Spokane and several more back east.

The project appointed 70 science professors as women STEM, or Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, faculty. The network provides "faculty peer-mentorship and cross-disciplinary support to help women faculty in STEM fields succeed and advance in their careers," said project coordinator Catherine Cronin of Gonzaga, in a statement.

Obstacles for women do exist in higher education, but SOU, said Schepmann has a "very supportive atmosphere, an almost idealized environment" where she's one of four chemistry professors, with three male colleagues — and there are often more female majors than male.

"This project will help our students, if that's your choice to be a female scientist," she said, noting that women face additional challenges with doing scholarship and publishing early in their careers if they want to move up the ladder to tenure and full professorships — with further complications if they start families.

The project intends to "build leadership skills and reduce isolation" as well as "yield greater synergy in problem-solving and innovation, widely viewed as critical to the nation's ability to compete in the national and global economies, said Cronin.

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